Effective communication is always determined in retrospect.

Communication is usually determined through the rear-view mirror. Did our town hall convey the tone and vision intended? Did the patient understand not only the importance of taking their medications but the instructions for following correct dosage? Did the employee hear the difficult feedback in a way that will lead to constructive outcomes? My belief is that every United Airlines team member had the best intentions when following their protocol. However, they missed the mark in that trust and relationships are the foundations of communication.

Despite our best intentions, good communication happens through the eyes of the beholder(s).

We may believe we are good communicators but do our recipients of the message agree? While Stephen Covey famously said, “We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviors,” we need to remember that United Airlines flipped this scenario. These employees and leaders, while following the integrity of their policy, neglected to account for how passengers, the media and consumers at large would judge their behaviors. Real-time video has allowed us to get a glimpse into a precarious situation. We need to remember that we are always on stage in this virtual age. Are our actions always displaying trust and respect for our patients, their loved ones and our visitors? While our missions should prohibit us from ever “re-accommodating” a patient, chances are we use words that could inadvertently leave a negative mark on the healthcare community.

We must pick ourselves back up off the floor (sometimes more often than we’d like to admit).

Even the pros mess up. United Airlines CEO, Oscar Munoz, has a reputation for being an effective communicator and feel confident their airline is made up of hard-working, well-intentioned employees. Negative things happen in travel and in healthcare. More important than the gaffe itself, are the demonstrable steps organizations and individuals take to persevere afterwards.

Think this can only happen to United Airlines? Think again.

We operate 24/7, every day of each year. Our patients and their loved ones can now share good, bad and shocking information with a snap of a mobile device. In our work, we have found it essential to establish person-centeredness as an integral value and a communication competency that needs to be cultivated by every individual who wears a badge in your organization. We recommend two proven models: Language of Caring’s Heart-Head-Heart for person-centered communication and HealthStream’s RELATE for person-centered behaviors. Seek out opportunities to institute deliberate practice and cultivate communication competencies for not just regular daily needs but simulate crisis scenarios.

Consider using two criteria: are my words and actions building trust? Am I displaying caring and compassion? At the end of the day, every person we encounter gives us the opportunity to display trust, respect, and compassion. We need to be ever more vigilant when we feel we are sliding into territory that could lead to irrevocable circumstances.